Yiannopoulos pledges to speak on UC Berkeley campus Sunday, welcome or not
A far-right campus event called off by student organizers and UC Berkeley officials may turn into an unsponsored rally after promoter Milo Yiannopoulos insisted Saturday he would show up at the school to speak, regardless.
During a Facebook Live conference, Yiannopoulos, an ultraconservative political provocateur and former Breitbart News columnist, placed blame on UC Berkeley officials for the disintegration of Free Speech Week.
“We are going to be hosting an event come hell or high water” Sunday, Yiannopoulos said Saturday on video from a California hotel room. “We will be expressing our constitutional rights to free speech, free expression, on Sproul Plaza, the home of the Free Speech Movement, tomorrow as planned, with or without student help, with or without the cooperation of UC Berkeley itself. The administration has done everything in its power to crush its own students’ aspirations. UC Berkeley has a deservedly poor reputation for free speech.”
Campus spokesman Dan Mogulof dismissed Yiannopoulos’ claims that the university purposely made it difficult to hold the event on campus.
“It’s utter nonsense,” he said during a news conference at the university Saturday afternoon, adding that the school is prepared to spend more than $1 million on security measures and logistical concerns. “We’re not in the habit of spending that kind of money for events we’re trying to block. It simply does not make sense.”
The news conference came to an abrupt end after it was interrupted by protester Sunsara Taylor, who shouted over officials that UC Berkeley “rolled out the red carpet to normalize and collaborate with fascism.”
Mogulof said organizers with the conservative student group Berkeley Patriot decided to cancel Free Speech Week, which was scheduled for Sproul Plaza from Sunday through Wednesday. Officials said university police are working with the Berkeley Police Department on security measures for Sunday in light of the unofficial event on Sproul Plaza, which has been named the March for Free Speech.
Berkeley Patriot representatives confirmed Saturday morning the group had canceled Free Speech Week out of fear for their safety.
Pranav Jandhyala, a student leader of Berkeley Patriot, said his vision for the event had been one of peaceful civil discourse on both political sides. The event originally had included liberal speakers, but they started dropping out because “no liberal would come to an event that was automatically going to be perceived as hateful, just because of Milo.”
“We’ve gotten death threats, like, ‘If we see you on Sproul Plaza, we’ll gang up on you and attack you. There’s no way this speech will happen,’” Jandhyala said Saturday.
Mogulof, however, said Saturday, “We are confident that UCPD would have had the necessary resources in place to provide security for the events.”
The on-again off-again nature of the event did not deter demonstrations against Free Speech Week by organizations that argued the event was merely a guise for hate speech.
A diverse group of social justice organizations gathered in Berkeley for a march against hate Saturday ahead of the now-canceled event. About 300 people chanting, playing instruments and waving flags gathered at 63rd and Adeline streets to march to Sproul Plaza. They were joined by Chelsea Manning, a transgender woman who served in the U.S. military and was court-martialed under the Espionage Act.
Isaac Lev Szmonko, an organizer with San Francisco’s antiracist Catalyst Project, said during the march that he didn’t buy the ever-changing narrative surrounding Free Speech Week.
“We’re hearing different things about it every minute. We’ve seen this type of bait and switch before from the right wing,” he said.
Woods Ervin, policy director at Transgender, Gender Variant and Intersex Justice Project, said the event’s title isn’t a reflection of its aim.
“This isn’t about free speech. It’s about hate speech,” Ervin said. “We’re speaking up against racism and white supremacism and fascist speech and violence.”
Suzanne Nossel, executive director of the free speech organization PEN America, released a statement saying that the cancellation of the event “represents no setback for free speech.” She defended UC officials against an event she said was “aimed to provoke outrage and bait those who might call for their expression to be shut down.”
Nossel cited Ben Shapiro’s recent appearance at Berkeley as “hopeful evidence that reasoned dialogue between sharply opposing views is possible,” while criticizing the organization of Free Speech Week.
“Repeated changes to the program and lack of confirmation of events called the organizers’ seriousness into question, as did their reluctance to comply with reasonable requests for information and cooperation by the campus charged with ensuring the safety of speakers and participants,” Nossel said of Free Speech Week’s conservative organizers. “Going forward, we call on all parties to reflect a constructive spirit aimed to create a campus that is truly open to all people and all ideas.”
Free Speech Week is now a far cry from the campus-sponsored conservative gathering that once boasted high-profile speakers. Recent rumors of cancellation had surfaced when far-right author Ann Coulter and Steve Bannon, a former adviser to President Trump, announced they would not attend.
Lucian Wintrich, a scheduled conservative speaker who pulled out Wednesday, charged that Yiannopoulos and his company knew the event would be called off earlier in the week. The most recent promotion from organizers was a way of playing a media game, he said.
“Milo can say, ‘I was about to throw the most incredible conservative event that ever happened … and UC Berkeley shut it down.’” he said.
Jandhyala, of Berkeley Patriot, said the student body had requested polarizing conservative figures and had hoped commentators who unsuccessfully tried to speak on campus before, like Coulter and Yiannopoulos, would be able to express their views under a school-sponsored, civil environment.
“We didn’t want a hateful event. We really wanted to organize a week of platforms for people to speak for the first time on campus,” he said. “We wanted this to be a true, symbolic show of support for the principles of free speech, and we thought that (UC) Berkeley would rise to this challenge.”